Photo by Jerry Gay
Ballard writer Ingrid Ricks, who is losing her eyesight and has a past that has haunted her, recently got on the New York Times bestseller list for her book, “Hippie Boy.”

From ‘Hippie Boy’ to bestselling author

While losing eyesight, Ballardite inspires others

On the back cover of her memoir, “Hippie Boy,” Ballard author Ingrid Ricks poses the question, “What would you do if your Mormon stepfather pinned you down and tried to cast Satan out of you?”

The answer, at least for thirteen-year-old Ricks, was: “RUN.”

It’s the story of her memoir, which on June 14 made the New York Times Best Seller List. It details how she grew up with an over religious mother and an overbearing Mormon stepfather, who she ran away from to be a tool hustling vagabond with her father.

It’s just one moment in Ricks past that had cast a shadow over her life, and one that she had put to rest by writing the memoir. Recently, she has been afflicted by another challenge: a degenerative eye diseases that is stealing away her sight.

But she doesn’t let those experiences get her down, nor does she let them prevent her from inspiring others. From teaching teens how to find their voice and identity through writing to giving others the strength to fight against eye disease, Ricks’ motto can be summed up in the age-old line -- if a tad cliché -- “Follow your heart.”

“If you go down that path and you give it everything you got and stay true to it,” she said, “the universe really opens itself up to you.”

Rediscovering her passion

Writing the story Hippie Boy had always been on the back of Ricks’ mind for as long as she could remember. But she was sidetracked early on in life by her career and her life.

Ricks started out as a reporter over twenty years ago for The Ballard News-Tribune’s sister paper, The Highline Times. From there, she moved on to writing freelance and for The Seattle Times writing about social issues. Then, when her husband wanted to go to law school, they picked up and went to Pittsburgh, where she picked up a marketing and advertising agency job. And when they had two daughters, it was up to her to be a provider.

Eventually they would move to Ballard, where she continued working with clients, but it was not enough.

“I always had this ache in my gut,” she said, saying that she would pull down her manuscript from the shelf every few months and dust it off. But, she said, “It wasn’t really responsible to go after my dream when we had a family to support.”

It wasn’t until a weekend getaway in November of 2009 when her daughters did something that stunned her.

“Walking down the street -- I will absolutely never forget it -- my two daughters both decided they would do a parody of me as an old woman,” Ricks said. “They both bent over … pretended like they were walking on a cane and said in an old lady’s voice, ‘My book, my book, I have to write my book.’”

Though she laughs when she tells this story, Ricks said the scene awoke her.

“I had this dream that I wanted so much it was eating a hole inside me and I wasn’t doing anything about it,” she said. “And what scared me so much more, stressed me so much more, is that is what I was teaching my daughters: that if you have a dream, you shouldn’t go after it.”

So she sat down and got to work. Every day she would get up at 5:30 a.m. and write for a couple of hours before she had to take the girls to school. Then she would go to her husband’s office to work on some client work through the morning, and in the afternoon coop herself up in Aster Coffee Lounge writing until she had to pick up her daughters at 3:30 p.m.

“In six months, voila, I have this manuscript I had been languishing on and off for 10 years and something I had wanted to write forever," she said. And eventually, after trudging through the murky world of publishing, her book came out.

Ricks said the book had opened up many opportunities for her. One of them was helping teenagers at Scriber Lake High School find their voice through writing. It resulted in a project far larger than either her or the teacher she partnered with could have predicted. Two books collecting students' work came out of it, "We Are Absolutely Not Okay" and "You've Got It All Wrong." Ballard News-Tribune columnist Peggy Sturdivant wrote about the class in her column, "At Large in Ballard: Absolutely."

Losing her eyesight

Ricks said she always had trouble seeing in the dark and sometimes bumping into things, but for a while, she never saw it as a big deal.
After a couple of incidents, though, her husband pressed her to get her eyes checked.

One was when she accidentally sideswiped a car on a dark and rainy while tentatively merging because she simply didn’t see the car. Another was when she was playing racquetball with her husband -- who she could usually hold her own against -- but was unable to score a single point. “Balls were just whizzing right past my head,” she said.

When she went in to the doctor in 2004, it wasn’t good news. She walked out learning she was legally blind, plagued with the obscure disease Retinitis Pigmentosa, which affects periphery and night vision. Glasses would not fix her ailment. (She really wanted a cute pair of red cat-eye frames.)

“I spent the next two weeks huddled in my basement, sobbing. I was so terrified for the future,” she said, thinking of her family and especially her daughters. “… Anytime they hit those monumental things, graduating, getting married, having kids … and you know, not seeing my husband grow old. Not seeing myself grow old --”

“-- If you let your mind go there, there’s a lot,” she said.

Shortly after, she went to South Africa on a trip to write about AIDs orphans. While on the plane ride over, despite the depressing subject matter she was about to undertake, she was still frustrated and feeling sorry for herself. “Who wants to hire a blind journalist?” she asked herself.

One night, her self deprecation came to a halt. From her hut, she saw a beautiful woman outside sitting on a white sheet, and in her arms was a baby boy, around two years old -- the same age as Ricks’ daughter was at the time. She realized that the woman and the boy were both going to die. They both had AIDs.

“I’m looking at him, and I’m thinking of my daughter who’s at home and healthy and happy and chubby” Ricks said. “… Right then and there, I felt this sort of shame wash over me. I recognized how good I had it. I wasn’t dying of any disease. I had a future.”

These days, though her periphery vision is all but gone (“like looking at the world through a silver dollar”), Ricks said she is taking a stand and doing anything she can to regain her eyesight, making dietary and lifestyle changes and taking naturopathic measures.

Of course, because Ricks is Ricks, she wrote a new book about her experience, called Focus.

To learn more about Ingrid Ricks, her work and to read her blog, visit www.ingridricks.com.

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